A Good Word, A Fine Phrase, A Printed Page

Paperback Writer
The Beatles

A Good Word, A Fine Phrase, A Printed Page

Artist in His Studio


“So, I want to be a paperback writer.” The song is about someone who will do anything to get a book deal. It’s not about the money, it’s not about art, it’s about a place on the shelf at the local bookstore. If all goes well, the money and the art may follow. This is the dream of the writer, or at least the writer at the center of the song. But what is it a writer does and how do you teach someone to be a writer? The painting is by Rembrandt and it is of him in his studio trying to make a painting. When we think of the painter making his art we have a picture, we know what a painter at work looks like. Of course we do not really know what the work is the painter is doing, we only know what the painter looks like when he is working. When someone is trying to master the art of putting paint on canvas, we know what that looks like too. The work of course is in the mind and the imagination but we kid ourselves into believing we know what the artist at work and the artist in training look like and what it is they do.

The writer may be at a desk with pad and paper or a typewriter, but the pad may be blank, the typewriter silent. The work is entirely invisible. Even if the pen is moving and the typewriter is putting letters on a page the work is somehow separate from the movement of the pen or the keys. Perhaps the same is true of the painter and the bits of color and the fragments of an image are not much different from the ink on the page. But it seems that a painting in process looks more like “something” than a text in process, though both the painter and the writer begin by confronting an empty space.

Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo
Lloyd Arnold

The photograph of Hemingway was taken for the dust jacket of one of his books. It was intended to show the writer at work. It is a staged picture and it looks a bit staged. Anyone who has read A Moveable Feast knows how Hemingway presented his approach to the writing process and it wasn’t sitting at a typewriter banging away at keys. It was working and reworking sentences until they were “true.” Critics can argue over how true those sentences were in fact but he labored over them until they were true to him, or so he tells us. There is also a romance to this image of the writer punching keys. Hemingway is alleged to have said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” I think he thought these “sports” because they involved personal risk and the one engaged in the sport was risking her or his life in way a football player or baseball player does not. Perhaps by this definition writing is a sport as well. It certainly proved deadly for Hemingway.

As an English teacher I struggle with teaching writing. I do not believe anyone can be taught an art but they can be taught the craft that the individual can transform into art and proceed from craftsman to artist. I do not expect that many of my students will attempt this transformation, though I know some will. Most just want to know what they need to know to write a college paper so they can go on and get a college degree, in other words they need to become craftsmen with words. I do not know of any other way to become a good writer than by writing. This makes for a lot of repetition and drill in the classroom. My experience is that the more students write the better they write. They must spend some time building vocabulary, looking at what good writing looks like, and thinking about what they want to say. But to write well they must write regularly, But in the class much of this is monotonous and dull. Each day of each school year I wrestle with how to make this interesting. But writing is a solitary business and writers must bring their own excitement to the process. This is difficult to do when all the student aspires to is competency or something less than competency. For most of them this is not a sport.

Plot Chart for Harlot’s Ghost
Norman Mailer

This paragraph is sandwiched between two images of two different writers’ process (or at least a part of their process) for constructing a novel. The image above is Norman Mailer’s plot chart for one of his novels, Harlot’s Ghost. It demonstrates that he had a plan when he wrote, someplace he wanted to get to. The book is a long book and the chart looks complicated. I do not know how closely he followed this chart but it is evidence that though inspiration may be a part of the process, it is certainly not the whole of the process; in fact it may be a very small part of the process. The other image is of Julian Barnes’ “completion scheme” for one of his books, Flaubert’s Parrot. I am not sure how to read the chart but it looks like he is trying to bring loose ends together, but that may be just my take on what I see. But it shows that careful thought and planning goes into the making of a book. It goes into the making of any piece of writing of consequence, from the term paper to the Great American Novel.

Completion Scheme Flaubert’s Parrot

Julian Barnes


But what is equally important to notice is that Barnes and Mailer do not approach their compositional problems in the same way and there is a lesson in this as well. As writers, whether we write as craftsmen or as artists, we have to have a method that works for us, that can help us put words on a piece paper when the words will not put themselves there, that will help us when the inspiration does not come, or after the inspiration has come and gone and the real work of writing begins. It is my experience with the writing process that the words that come most directly from inspiration are usually the worst words I write and the hardest words to part with. There is an emotional investment in words that flow from inspiration. It felt good getting these words and writing them was a thrilling exercise, it was form of ecstasy, a kind of “speaking in tongues.”

These words are important because they begin the process and wonderful things can follow from them, but they are words about which it is difficult to be objective and when the emotions clear and objective thought returns they are often embarrassing. But the words in which I take some pride would probably not have come if those that embarrass had not come first. This is part of the work of writing. This is what it means to be truthful. If we are not truthful with ourselves about what we have written our words cannot be true for others.

There was an article in The Guardian this weekend about Australian writers and their use of language. It was called “Australian Authors Defend Language.” There are many countries in the world that have English as their national language. But none of these English speaking nations speak entirely the same language. They have all evolved differently. For example, when the first Harry Potter book was published in England it was called Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. The stone that Nicholas Flamel in fact created was the philosopher’s stone that was sought by all the medieval alchemists. For American audiences, though, the title was changed. Perhaps Americans had less experience with alchemy and with philosopher’s stones but the publishers obviously thought that “The Sorcerer’s Stone” would play better with American readers than “Philosopher’s Stone.”

The problem for Australian writers though goes deeper than this. When a book that began in Australia does well in America it is often in part because the American publishers Americanize the text. This wouldn’t normally be a problem for Australian books in Australia but the Australian government wants to change import laws so that the American editions can be sold in Australia. The end result is that the Australian vernacular is purged from successful Australian literature. For Australian writers this must be terribly frustrating because part of what a writer does is capture a reality that is real for the writer.

When foreign publishers can do what they want to a writer’s work what happens to that work? Is it really the author’s work any more but the work of an anonymous editor someplace? What does it say about a nation when it is willing to sacrifice the purity of its literary tradition for a few dollars more in profits? Mark Twain said, “The Difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightening bug.” What happens to a literary tradition when non-literary folks are able to change the “right word” into “almost the right word” and transform a writers lightning into the lightning bug?

Finding Forrester – “You’re the Man Now Dog”
Columbia Pictures

This clip from the film Finding Forrester makes a point about an aspect of the writing process. Forrester tells his young student to sit at the typewriter and type. Don’t think just type. He is trying to get the student to see that the writer has to have something to work with and words on a page are the writer’s tools. I think this is good advice. I try to encourage students to do a first draft of any essay they do for me as a free write. That trying to make a first draft the finished draft is often an invitation to writer’s block. But what Forrester does not address, and perhaps he did not need to address, is where do the ideas come from. For a writer of fiction the ideas, or at least the initial idea, often comes from inspiration.

Research can be done for a story, but research rarely produces a story. But for the student writing an essay for class the research often comes first, there is a topic that was assigned or selected. That topic is then researched and the paper is written. To do the first draft students must fill their minds with the information that can feed that draft. But I think it is best to write quickly and freely and then edit and revise later. But it is often the editing and the revising that the students are trying to avoid. Anthony Trollope once said, “There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily.” But for most who see writing as a means to something else and not as an end in itself, writing quickly and easily is the goal.

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt

Claude Monet

I like this painting because it illustrates for me how sub-text works in a piece of writing. There is a house behind the trees under which the young lady is sitting. We cannot see the house because it is hidden behind the trees. But we know the house is there because we can see its reflection on the surface of the river. This is how sub-text works in writing, it is not said explicitly anywhere but it is reflected on the surface of the language from which the text is constructed. This for me is where the true interest in writing lies. It is in what the imagination of the reader must bring to the reading. The writer has put it there but the reader must find it. The reader must look at more than words on a page they must look for all that lives between the words and between the lines. It is in part here that the voice of the writer lives.